On the weekend that three climbers were killed in an avalanche on Buachaille Etive Mor, it was timely that I and 10 others were learning how to assess avalanche risk, albeit 100 miles to the north-east in the Cairngorms.
We were taking part in a two-day Jonathan Conville Memorial Trust course, based at Ardenbeg Outdoor Centre, in Grantown-on-Spey. Aged 27, Jonathan died in a climbing accident on the Matterhorn in 1979, prompting his family to establish a charity that would help similarly aspiring mountaineers gain affordable outdoor experiences.
Judging by the crop of ‘students’ on our course, the trust is achieving its aims. Seven of the 11 were university students in their early 20s, while our number included being budding mountain leaders and would-be outdoor instructors. A Durham University student was even prepared to pursue his dream of becoming an outdoor guide, despite spending three years reading philosophy. I’m sure Jonathan’s family would approve.
Despite tramping across mountains in the UK, the Alps, Andes and Atlas ranges, in a naive, it-will-never-happen-to-me kind of way, I have never worried about the risk of being caught up in an avalanche. I remember watching an avalanche sweep down Aconcagua’s north face and finding it a beautiful, not at all fearsome, sight. I realise now that that I was foolhardy, reckless in the extreme, as this weekend’s tragedy demonstrated.
Our avalanche work – carried out in Coire an t-Sneachda and Coire na Ciste, in the northern Cairngorms – involved taking snow samples, choosing safe routes and even what to do should we be caught in an avalanche. The training was illuminating. Where I once saw pristine white slopes, there were brittle layers of ice and snow that could avalanche under the slightest pressure. It wasn’t a case of being paranid, but of being prepared for potential eventualities.
However, the most powerful lesson we would learn is that the forces of nature are uncontrollable. On Saturday, the level of avalanche risk in the Northern Corries was identical to Buchaille Etive Mor. While we tossed snowballs and gleefully hurled ourselves down steep slopes to practice ice axe arrests, people were dying. It was a sobering realisation.